Rickson Gracie: Choke

Choke is quite an old film (I think it was released in 1996) so some of you may well have seen it. I had the good fortune to see it recently, and for those of you who, like me, had missed it on first release, here's my impressions of it.

Choke is a documentary following three fighters (Todd "Hollywood" Hayes, a kickboxer and wrestler, Koichiro Kimura, a wresler and shootfighter, and Rickson Gracie, a BJJ stylist and member of a quite famous family... [IMG]http://www.fightingarts.com/forums/ubb/smile.gif[/IMG] ) through training and their fights in the 1995 Japanese Vale Tudo Championships.

The film divides roughly into two parts, one covering the fighters' background, approach to training, and their thoughts on the upcoming competition, and one covering the championships itself. The film makers have tried to show each aspect that they cover in a way that contrasts the approaches of the different fighters. So you'll see Gracie train, then Hayes, then Kimura, for example.

It's a useful device, as the contrasts are marked; Gracie comes across as someone whose art has been completely integrated into his life. In one of the opening scenes, you see him playfully scrapping with his kids, the way Dads do. Except that this Dad has his son drop into a perfect armbar on him mid-way through! It's a revealing scene, giving you something of an insight into what it is to be a Gracie - you get the feeling that BJJ is simply something they are, as natural as the more familiar family rituals and routines we all know.

Hayes comes over as someone who has been forced to fight; growing up in a tough environment, taking up martial arts for self defence. Even his entry to the championship has a motive not directly related to his fighting (he wants to compete in the Olympic bobsled event, and hopes to win enough money to further this dream). Hayes' segments have some wonderful reiterations of the "groundwork vs striking" and "sport vs street" arguments too, which will have you either cheering, or throwing popcorn at the screen dependant upon which side of the divide you stand. One of the most interesting things about Hayes' segment is that his family is never seen - whereas we see Rickson's wife worrying that he'll be injured, and Kimura's parents midly rebuking him for engaging in such a dangerous activity, Hayes' corresponding segments are delivered by his trainers. As though, in a way, Hayes' coaches are almost a surrogate family for him. An interesting contrast with Gracie, whose coaches *are* his family!

Kimura's motivation for fighting never seemed entirely clear to me; he seems somewhat out of his depth throughout, and at times it's hard to understand what this rather diffident man is doing all this for.

This first section is my favourite of the film - it's a real insight into the different fighters and their approaches.

The second section covers the championship itself, a combination of fight action, and reaction from the fighters (and their preparations between rounds) backstage.

There is a huge change in Rickson across the two segments - during the championship, he is focussed - terse, agressive - quite different to the man expanding at length upon what his training means to him, in the first part of the film. Kimura's lack of mental readiness for his task is also revealed, at turns angry and dejected, again, the impression of him being out of his depth is reinforced.

The second segment also reveals the film's scene stealer - 135 pound Yukio Nakai, a wrestler outweighed to a huge degree, and towered over by his opponents. Nakai is one of those people with an abundance of heart. In fact, Nakai has more heart than desire not to be blinded, or to not spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, it seems. In his first fight, his eye is closed by what he alleges to be a gouge by first opponent Gordeau (a Savate practitioner who towers over the hapless Nakai, delivering a beating until he succumbs to a heel hook submission at 26:41 http://www.sherdog.com/fightfinder/sherdogsfightpics.cfm?matchId=557).

Taking more punishment over successive fights, Nakai's eyes can barely open by his last fight, yet he fights on.

The fights are presented well, and fans should have nothing to grumble about in this section (as long as they bear in mind that they're seeing '95 vintage MMA) - much more fight footage would have overbalanced the film, and limited it's appeal outside of the MMA/MA market - I think the film makers have struck a good balance in the amount shown. The backstage footage is very interesting, and well presented. It's interesting to see the way the fighters react to success and defeat, and the way the trainers attempt to keep their spirits up and maintain their charges' focus between fights.

Choke is a good film in it's own right - and I think it's watchable even for someone with no interest in MMA. If you're a fan, it's essential viewing - a snapshot of a point in history of the sport, and a window into the lives of professional fighters.

[This message has been edited by JohnC (edited 03-04-2004).]